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I Never Even Lived A Woman Comes of Age

(Posted on 9/22/01 )

Tzili by Aharon Appelfeld25

Aharon Appelfeld was born in 1932 near Czernowitz, (then Romania, now the Ukraine). When Appelfeld was eight years old the Germans invaded his village and his mother was murdered. Expelled with most of the Jews in the area to Transnistria, be was separated from his father during a forced march, and spent the remainder of the war on his own. He immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1946. His first collection of stories, Smoke, was published in 1962; since then, be has written more than 20 books, including short stories, novellas and full-length novels, which have been translated into many languages. Abaron Appelfeld is one of the great Hebrew writers of our time.

A Woman Comes of Age
This short novel tells the story of Tzili Kraus, a Jewish girl abandoned by her family, who spends the course of the war wandering among peasant villages. It is a coming-of-age story taking place in the shadow of the Holocaust, and marked by events that shape a woman’s identity as an individual and a woman: the onset of menstruation, first love and sexual relations, pregnancy and miscarriage. The story ends with Tzili joining a convoy of refugees, and boarding a ship bound for Palestine. It is one of many Appelfeld stories focusing on characters who survive the war.

This discussion of the novella26 does not analyze formalistic and thematic elements, but rather approaches the work from one point of view, the fact that its heroine is a woman. It describes the special character of women’s survival as portrayed in the story of Tzili. The opening sentence both apologizes for the unheroic nature of the heroine, and hints at the narrator’s function as a witness to the Holocaust: “Perhaps it would be better to leave the story of Tzili Kraus’s life untold. Her fate was a cruel and inglorious one, and but for the fact that it actually happened we would never have been able to tell her story.” (1)27

The first generalization that may be made about Tzili is that as a child-woman she is an innocent victim, weak and unaware of what is taking place around her. She has a simple and even primitive consciousness, and her emotional world, which absorbs and experiences the reality she meets, lacks the shaping dimension of “civilization.” It is completely internalized. Tzili’s profound and basic sense of orphanhood determines her loneliness, and encloses her in a bubble through which she experiences reality. Paradoxically, this private and isolated experience sometimes gives her a sharp understanding of reality.

The gap between the innocence of the child-woman and the reality she faces destines her to a cruel fate. In mythological terms, Tzili is Adam as a girl, expelled from Paradise (not in its idyllic sense but as a state of consciousness in which there is a difference between good and evil) into a world which is wholly bad.<

According to Yigael Schwartz,28 during the course of the book Tzili comes of age, leaving girlhood and becoming a woman. This process involves physical change and sexual development, and exposure to the emotional world and consciousness of women.

The first significant event in this journey to womanhood is the onset of menstruation, which begins after Tzili meets up with the darker side of sexual relations, in the form of a non-Jew who attempts to rape her. The appearance of menstruation, signifying fertility, is accompanied in Tzili’s case by a heavy sense of death:

When dawn broke she saw that her dress was stained with a number of bright spots of blood. She lifted up her dress. There were a couple of spots on the ground too. “I’m going to die.” The words escaped her lips … “I’m going to die,” she said, and all at once she rose to her feet. The sudden movement alarmed her even more. A chill ran down her spine and she shivered. The thought that soon she would be lying dead became more concrete to her own feet. She began to whimper like an animal…”Mother, mother!” she wailed, . .Her voice grew weaker and weaker and she fell to the ground with her arms spread out, as she imagined her body would lie in death.(22)29
In the absence of a mother this weighty event achieves catastrophic proportions. Tzili’s cry expresses not only the telling fact of her orphanhood, but also the significance of the mother’s absence. Tzili’s mother has not handed down any women’s traditions, not even in the most elementary sense of knowledge of one’s body, and the ability to recognize menstrual blood. Tzili’s orphanhood is emphasized in the way she is described. Her cry is like that of an animal, and she directs her own fall according to the image she has of death. TziIi is like Eve, ignorant, and she is not part of any real or conscious continuum, within which the bodily senses, and life and death, are built.Tzili experiences her first love with Mark, a Jewish refugee from the concentration camps. Still, she remains distant and passive:
And while Tzili was busy pondering ways and means of getting hold of the new, calming drink, Mark suddenly said: “I love you.” Tzili…was surprised, but not altogether…. “Tell me about yourself. Why don’t you tell me?” he would press her. The truth was that he only wanted to hear her voice. He showered many words on her during their days together in the bunker. His heart overflowed. Tzili, for her part, accepted her happiness quietly. Secretly she was glad that Mark loved her. (97-98)

Tzili approaches the experience of love slowly and cautiously, learning about it as it happens.
The encounter with Mark occurs at the same time as she experiences puberty — “Her femininity blossomed within her, blind and sweet.” — although before she reaches emotional maturity. She experiences their happiness mutely: “Tell me about yourself. Why don’t you tell me? he would press her.” It is only after Mark leaves that Tzili truly learns about intimate relations and becomes susceptible to them. She develops a dialogue of love out of her extremely innocent conceptions of the world:

For hours she sat and practiced the words, so that she would be ready for him when he came. “Where were you Mark? I was very worried. Here is some herb tea for you. You must be thirsty.” She did not prepare many words, and the few she did prepare, she repeated over and over again in a voice which had a formal ring in her ears. (109)

The next event in the development of female identity is pregnancy:

And in the middle of the hard, grim winter she sensed that her belly had changed and was slightly swollen. At first it seemed an insignificant change. But it did not take long for her to understand: Mark was inside her. (114)

Now she becomes one with Mark:

Heaven and hell merged into one. When she went to graze the cow or gather wood in the forest she felt Mark close by her side, even closer than in the days when they had slept together in the bunker. She spoke to him simply, as if she were chattering to a companion while she worked. (116)<

This stage of Tzili’s development is characterized by emotional maturity. She is not only a pregnant woman but also an adopting mother:

Once she dared to ask him: “Won’t your wife be angry with me?”
“My wife,” said Mark, “is a very forgiving woman.”
“As for me,” said Tzili, “I love your children as if they were my own.” (116)

There is an additional expression of her emotional maturity. For the first time in her life she defends herself aggressively and does not allow her employer to beat her: “One night she snatched the rope from the woman and said: ‘No you won’t. I’m not an animal. I’m a woman.'” (116) Tzili defends her humanity and her existence as a woman at the same time. The advancing pregnancy saves her for a time from her great loneliness, and strengthens her.30 However, this significant stage in Tzili’s maturation ends in a loss. The removal of the dead fetus from her womb cuts off the feeling of life and the human connection that had developed inside her practically from nothing. As Schwartz points out, the miscarriage returns her to her childhood, where she had been just another forsaken object in her parents’ yard. “Even her body was no longer hers.” (175)31

25Published in Hebrew as HaKutonet Vehapasim (The Coat and the Stripes) (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1992). [RETURN]
26 For other approaches (in Hebrew) see, for example, Hillel Barzel, “Historisophia and Poetica,” Alay Siach 23 (1985): 139-155; Dana Kleinov, “Aharon Appelfeld’s The Coat and the Stripes,” Meebefneem 46(1984): 402-404; Sarah Halperin, “Innocence and the Power of Suffering in The Coast and the Stripes,”Hadoar (12.27.86); Halperin, “Displaced by the Side of the Road,” Hadoar (1984); Halperin, “Mutual Relations between Humiliation and Self-Respect in The Coat and the Stripes,” Hadoar (1985); Yigael Schwartz, The Lament of the Individual and the Eternal Tribe (Jerusalem: Keter & Magnes, 1996), 163-178. [RETURN]
27 All page numbers refer to Tzili trans. Dalya Bilu (Middlesex: Penguin, 1984). On the significance of this sentence see Schwartz, 163, 177- 178. [RETURN]
28 See above note. [RETURN]
29 Schwartz discusses this event as part of his description of Tzili as a coming-of-age story which relates to the folk legend genre and its ritual stages, 170. [RETURN]
30 Schwartz, 175. [RETURN]
31 Schwartz, 177. [RETURN]
32 Schwartz, 177. [RETURN]
33 Katerina and Maria know each other from the good times they once shared in the big city. Since she thinks that Tzili is Maria’s daughter, Katerina takes Tzili under her wing, educates her according to the values of her world, and exploits her as well. [RETURN]
34 See Genesis: 37-50 [RETURN]
35 About the expression of religious despair in Appelfeld’s works in general and this story in particular, see Schwartz 143-194. [RETURN]
36 The biblical striped coat (more commonly referred to in English as “the coat of many colors”) is a cotton jacket embroidered with alternating, colored stripes. This type of jacket was considered prestigious, granted to loved ones to call attention to the respect in which they were held. Also Tamar wears a striped coat, a custom of the virgin daughters of the king. (Samuel II, 13:18). See Halperin, “Displaced by the Side of the Road,” Hadoar 63, (1984), 506. [RETURN]
37 “This symbol has once again become a real item of clothing, but with negative connotations, as the coat of the ‘lost’ La play on the Hebrew word for stripes-translator]: the striped pajamas of prisoners, worn by the victims of the Nazis in the concentration camps. The image of refugees in ‘the striped coats they had been given by the Joint [Distribution] Committee’ (184) on the ship making its way from Naples to Palestine, may be seen as a meta-realistic picture. On the realistic level, it simply represents the kind of new clothing the Jewish refugees received at the end the war, on their way to a new life. On the abstract symbolic level, it hints at idea that despite their liberation from the German murderers at the end of the war, the refugees have not been completely liberated from the imprisonment and enslavement that made their mark upon them, the uprooting from home, and the torture in the camps.” Halperin, “Displaced”.[RETURN]
38 Schwartz, 174. [RETURN]